A previous post has already introduced the subject of a most useful work that was published in the 1930s – Parsons’ Decorative Finishes. Subsequently I have used it as a ‘prompt’ for posts dealing with Imitation Stone Paints, Permanent Greens; Gloss Enamel Finishes and several other types of paint.
The book is divided into 17 sections and two of these will be considered in this post which looks at the Water Paint (‘bound distemper’) offered by Thomas Parsons at the time.
The first section of Parsons’ Decorative Finishes is headed Bill of Quantities and gives the framework for anyone wishing to specify the paints contained in the book.
This section contains two pages of colour samples. These were the colours that were available from Thomas Parsons in ‘Parlyte’ Water Paint and can be seen here – Page One – Page Two
‘Parlyte’ Water Paint
This was described as “…an oil-bound paint supplied in paste form to be thinned out with water or preferably ‘Parlyte’ Petrifying Liquid.” It spread and covered well and flowed out like an oil paint that dried to a fine washable texture.
It was claimed to be superior to ordinary distempers in that it was free from the general tendency to flake off.
It contained no lime, whiting, chalk or other similar “deleterious matter”. It was described as “particularly suitable for interior work and a special quality was made for outside work, which was more durable. All tints were fast to light, water and lime. The covering capacity was approximately 600 – 700 sq. yds. per cwt.
Specification for securing first-rate results
Upon Plaster –
a) One coat of ‘Parlyte’ Water Paint thinned with ‘Parlyte’ Petrifying Liquid.
b) One coat of ‘Parlyte’ Water Paint.*
*Note – If plaster is particularly porous or dry, apply first one coat of ‘Parlyte’ Anti-Suction Primer.
If distempered, remove the old material and apply:
a) One coat of ‘Parlyte’ Anti-Suction Primer.
b) One or two coats of ‘Parlyte’ Water Paint.*
*For outside work specify “for outside”.
Oil-bound water paints were a kind of hybrid – half water paint and half oil paint. They consisted of good-quality pigments, such as lithopone or titanium dioxide, dispersed in an emulsion of oil and water or an emulsified oil varnish. They were supplied in a paste form, which needed to be stirred up with a bit of water before use. They varied enormously in formulation and the differences were reflected in the price, working properties and the durability of the paint. It was always worthwhile to pay for a high-grade water paint from a reputable company such as Thomas Parsons & Sons.
Water paint dried to a matt finish which was tolerant of damp and resistant to the alkaline action of new plaster. It dried with a semi-porous film, which permitted a degree of moisture vapour to pass through it. The oil content was also sufficiently low to be less prone to the alkali attack that tended to occur to oil paints on fresh plaster. The employment of tung oil, with its superior alkali resistance, would also have helped. Furthermore, the manufacturers informed us that they were using lime-fast (i.e. alkali-resistant) pigments so there would be no chance of bleaching or discoloration. Its use was restricted to plaster, render and brickwork and not to woodwork as wood is subject to movement – contraction and expansion – and a film of water paint was not sufficiently flexible to accommodate itself to these movements.
While water paint adhered well to all firm, clean surfaces, it quickly flaked from loose, powdery or greasy ones because it possessed neither penetrating power nor the ability to resist greasy surface contamination. Thorough preparation prior to painting was essential; grease and loose material must be removed and powdery surfaces must be bound down with a primer. Water paint could be applied over itself until four to six coats were built up, but then cracking and peeling was likely. The problem came when it was overcoated by a more stable emulsion, for example, which might seem stable and itself be overcoated. A few schemes later the paint began to fail with no warning given. A more detailed explanation of the problems of water paints can be seen here.
Whilst these paints could be washed when dirty they could not be scrubbed like an oil paint. Only gentle rubbing with a sponge or soft cloth moistened with water was possible. However, when thoroughly dry an oil-bound distemper could be varnished over and this was frequently done on dadoes or other surfaces prone to marking.
The best ground for a water paint was one that had moderate but uniform porosity. It was most important that this was so, especially with a mid- to dark-toned water paint, otherwise the finish would be patchy. On absorbent surfaces such as new plaster and brickwork it was necessary to thin oil-bound distempers with a special solution known as petrifying liquid (a thin emulsion similar in composition to the medium of the paint). This also had the effect of increasing the oil content of the coating and made for a more durable coating. However, because the formulation of the various brands of water paint varied so much it was important to add only the petrifying liquid supplied by the manufacturer of the paint. Thomas Parsons produced an ‘anti-suction primer’ for surfaces that were particularly absorbent. On the other hand, if there was too little suction the water paint would flow on well, but would tend to sit on the surface without obtaining a proper key and flake off later.
Water paint was not suitable for application in bathrooms, kitchens or other areas where it would be exposed to steam and condensation because continued wetting and drying resulted in peeling and flaking.
Water paint was applied in much the same way as soft distemper, although as it contained a proportion of oil it had a little more ‘slip’, which made it easier. As it did not ‘set up’ as quickly, rather larger areas could be laid on at a time, but it was still important to join up these patches while the edges were still wet. Doors and windows should be kept closed while the paint was being applied, but opened as soon as completed. It was always advisable to keep a damp cloth at hand in order to wipe up splashes as they occurred for this was difficult once they had dried.
When used externally a good quality grade of water paint had the advantage of not cracking or peeling, but of gradually chalking and eroding away. This left a good surface for subsequent decoration. However, only two to three years was the expected life cycle before it needed renewing.
It appears that at this time there was often a debate about the respective merits of flat wall paint compared to those of water paint. Whilst the former was more expensive, most painters would agree that it maintained a fresh appearance longer than water paint. However, an uneven wall surface would tend to show more defects under wall paint than water paint
By the mid 1980s it was described as having been “completely superseded by emulsion paint in Britain”, yet under the faintly misleading label of “Distemper” it has reappeared on the lists of a couple of ‘traditional paint’ manufacturers. Strangely these specialists seem to have forgotten that their use will create problems at a later date. Those who specify it for its “chalky finish” are blindly unaware of this and will be all but forgotten when the paint starts to flake off and their clients wonder what is happening.
1930s Paint Colours
Should anyone want to use any of the paint colours shown on these colour cards Papers and Paints will be able to match them in most conventional finishes.
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